Life In Captivity: The Story Of Five Orcas

Although I try to be objective when writing about contentious subjects, it can be difficult, especially when the subject is one that invokes strong feelings. And yet, in most instances, it’s possible to to see both sides of the argument and understand that not everything is black and white. I tried to do the same here, but shortly after I began research, I realized I had set myself an impossible task — when it comes to the subject of orca captivity, there are no two sides of the argument.

There are currently 56 orcas in captivity around the world, each one a sentient being whose rights have been judged less important than financial profit. Each one has a story studded with tragedy and heartbreak, loneliness, fear, separation and death. Here I’ll share the stories of just five of these animals to demonstrate that no generalizations or rationalizations can justify keeping whales in captivity.

Lolita, Miami Seaquarium 

Lolita’s incarceration began in August 1970, when she was taken from the wild along with six other young orcas. The infamous whale drive, which took place in the waters of Puget Sound, Washington, separated the orca calves from their pod after using speedboats and explosives to herd them into a narrow cove. In the process, five whales were killed – including four of the calves. Lolita was purchased by the Miami Seaquarium, where she has lived for the past 45 years.

At first, Lolita had company in her prison, a male orca named Hugo. Hugo and Lolita mated several times but were never able to conceive. In March 1980, Hugo died of an aneurysm after repeatedly smashing his head into the walls of the whales’ tank. Lolita has been alone since, a devastating fate for an animal that would have spent her life as part of a tight-knit family in the wild. Today, Lolita still languishes in a tank whose dimensions are an infringement of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service standards. Legally, her tank must be at least 48 feet wide, and yet Lolita’s is just 35 feet at its widest point. Despite a complaint being filed against Miami Seaquarium by the Humane Society of the United States in 1995, no efforts were made to address Lolita’s illegal living conditions. Check out the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s ongoing efforts to free her and find out how you can help.

Tilikum, SeaWorld Orlando

Now infamous thanks to the documentary Blackfish, Tilikum was taken from the wild at just two years old, after being captured off the Icelandic coast in November 1983. He was kept for a year in a tiny cement holding tank before eventually being transferred to Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia, Canada. There, he was forced to live in confined conditions alongside two older female orcas, Haida II and Nootka IV. The whales were not compatible, and Tilikum was bullied so aggressively that he was eventually separated from the others and kept in a medical pool just 35 feet deep.

Tilikum’s trainers used food deprivation as a technique to teach him the tricks he was required to perform every day without respite. In February 1991, Tilikum and the other two whales at the park were involved in the fatal drowning of trainer Keltie Byrne, most likely as a result of prolonged stress. The aquarium closed shortly thereafter, and Tilikum was purchased by SeaWorld Orlando. Since then, he has been involved in the deaths of two more people, including SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, and yet he is still forced to perform on a regular basis. Tilikum is an important part of SeaWorld’s captive breeding program, and has been trained to donate sperm for artificial insemination purposes. Tilikum’s dorsal fin and tail fluke are both severely deformed as a result of his captivity.

Kshamenk, Mundo Marino, Buenos Aires

In 1992, Buenos Aires aquarium Mundo Marino obtained a new orca named Kshamenk, who they claimed to have rescued after he stranded on the Argentinian coast. It later became apparent that the stranding was not accidental; instead, Kshamenk and four other young whales were forced to beach themselves after professional whale herders used nets to prevent them from reaching open water at low tide. One whale was released, one died en route to the aquarium, and one died shortly after arrival as a result of slamming himself repeatedly against the tank walls. Kshamenk was the sole survivor.

Kshamenk has been at Mundo Marino ever since. For the first eight years of his captivity he had company, a female orca called Belen. The two whales conceived a calf in 1998, which was  stillborn. The tragedy was compounded in 2000, when Belen died in the fourth month of her second pregnancy. Kshamenk now lives alone in a tank so small that he can complete as many as 500 rotations of his living quarters in a single hour. Mundo Marino has tried several times to obtain a permit to sell Kshamenk to SeaWorld USA, all of which have so far been unsuccessful. SeaWorld is still using Kshamenk to forward their own interests, however, as they are currently using his sperm in their artificial insemination program.

Corky, SeaWorld San Diego

Captured off the coast of British Columbia in 1969 when she was just four years old, Corky has been in captivity longer than any other orca. Between 1968 and 1969, 12 orcas were taken from Corky’s pod and sold into captivity. Of those, she is the only survivor. She spent the first part of her incarceration at Marineland Palos Verdes, but was transferred to SeaWorld San Diego in 1987. There, efforts were made to introduce Corky into the aquarium’s new captive breeding program.

She gave birth to her first calf in 1977. He was the first orca to be born alive in captivity, but the success was short lived — the baby whale refused to eat and died just 16 days later of pneumonia. Since then, Corky has endured six more pregnancies, each of which ended in tragedy. Corky’s longest-lived offspring survived for just 46 days. Perhaps as a result of her inability to produce healthy calves, Corky has acted as a surrogate mother to several of SeaWorld San Diego’s young orcas. In the wild, her own mother is now dead, but her siblings live on as part of British Columbia’s wild A5 pod. Heartbreakingly, Corky still vocalizes in the same dialect as her family, despite having been separated from them for 46 years.

Orkid, SeaWorld San Diego

Orkid is one of Corky’s surrogate calves, having been taken under the wing of the older whale after her own parents died in tragic circumstances. Orkid was born at SeaWorld San Diego in September 1988, the offspring of two captive whales, a male named Orky II and a female called Kandu V. Orky II died three days after Orkid was born, of pneumonia and chronic wasting. At the time, his flukes were deformed and his dorsal fin had collapsed completely.

Despite the fact that Kandu V and Corky consistently struggled to assert dominance over each other (perhaps because one was an Icelandic orca, while the other was from Canada) the two whales were kept in close confines. When Orkid was just one year old, her mother rammed Corky during a live show and fractured her own jaw and severed several major arteries as a result. It took 45 minutes for Kandu V to bleed to death, with Orkid present throughout. Just 11 months old at the time, it took weeks for Orkid to recover from the trauma of witnessing her mother’s death. In the years since, she has consistently shown aggression towards her trainers. Read more here about the travesty that is SeaWorld San Diego.

These are the horror stories of just five captive orcas; each of the 56 has his or her own to tell, not to mention the stories of the whales left behind in the wild, never to see their family members again. There are no happy endings to stories like these, no justifications or shades of gray. Please, add your voice to the worldwide chorus calling for change. Don’t visit marine parks. Sign a petition; protest at or email a marine park about your feelings; petition politicians — the only way to end this horror story is collectively.

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